If you went to high school in Australia after 1992, you probably studied Melina Marcetta’s book Looking for Alibrandi. The 2000 film, adapted by Marcetta, helped make the story one that very well known.
This is the first time it’s been adapted for the stage and the Malthouse and Belvoir co-production has an honesty that honours the story and reflects why it still resonates so strongly.
It’s the early 1990s and Josie Alibrandi is in her final year at a posh Sydney school that’s run by Catholic nuns. She stands out at school because she’s on a scholarship and lives in the Italian area of Glebe with her unmarried mum.
And, despite having a loving and supportive parent, she stands out at home because she’s considered too modern and rebellious by her nonna, who is convinced that the Alibrandi women are cursed.
Of course, Josie wants to blend in and not stand out in anything except her academic results and in catching the eye of super spunk John Barton, who’s dad is and MP, rather than that of super spunk Jacob Coote, who’s dad is a mechanic. And then Josie’s dad turns up.
Kate Davis’ design captures the time, place, mood and attitude in a glance. The stage floor is covered with the type of floral carpet that immediately take generations of us back to the only-for-visitors formal living rooms of nonnas, nannas and grandmas.
But the plastic furniture and table clothes are from the backyard where families and friends gathered. And it’s surrounded by crates of tomatoes.
Katie Sfetkidis’ lighting makes gorgeous use of the crates, but they are for, what Josie calls, “wog day” – the day when family gather in the backyard to make a year’s worth of passata. The passata – never a jar of Leggos – is the blood that binds the intergenerational story of the Alibrandi women.
Writer Vidya Rajan has spoken about Josie’s family experience being very similar to her own experience in a Sri Lankan migrant family in Australia. Her script remains close to the source and there are bonus references for those who know the book and film.
This closeness is its strength, especially with capturing the intergenerational trauma and love, but it also holds back an opportunity to structure and re-focus the story for the stage.
This closeness is also supported in the direction by Stephen Nicolazzo, who’s been known to subvert source material. But he’s spoken about the story and film being the first to reflect his own experiences growing up in suburban Melbourne.
This connection has created a rich subtext of how being othered and rejected are still far too much a part of our lives and how the need to fit in creates secrets.
Josie’s an “ethnic”, a “wog” and a “bastard” – words that now jar so much that they need to be put in quotes – but being dismissed because of your background and family; your class and income; how you look, sound, feel, think or love doesn’t change. There’s always someone who is different enough to be spat at.
This is reflected in a cast (John Marc Desegano, Ashley Lyons, Chanella Macri, Lucia Mastrantone, Hannah Monsoon and Jennifer Vuletic) whose backgrounds bring the story into today and who all bring a rawness and what feels like their lived experiences into their roles.
Looking for Alibrandi is a loving re-telling of a loved story that continues to ask why Australian culture continues to drift to a culture of sameness.
Looking for Alibrandi
Merlyn Theatre – The Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Performance: Wednesday 13 July 2022
Season continues to 31 July 2022
Information and Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au
Upstairs Theatre – Belvoir Theatre, 25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills
Season: 1 October – 6 November 2022
Information and Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au
Image: Chanella Macri and Lucia Mastrantone feature in Looking for Alibrandi – photo by Jeff Busby
Review: Anne-Marie Peard